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What made humans speak their first words – Evolution of human language!

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  • September 25, 2017

The first words that we spoke...what led to them? Being a content writer whose career entirely depends upon ‘word power’; this topic intrigued me for quite some time. Finally I decided to take a dive and come up with the answers (obviously with help of scholarly articles from some very learned men); Evolutionary Adaptation it was.

Evolutionary Adaptation of Organisms

Nature has its own way to things; evolutionary adaptation being one of them. Evolutionary adaptation is basically an evolution of organisms that happens over several generations spanning hundreds of years to facilitate natural positive selection. Nature, through its own course, leads the organisms to evolve from its current form and encourages ‘survival of the fittest’. At the end, those who could evolve successfully to the changing environment and requirement survive and those who don’t stay behind.

Two characteristics decide whether an evolutionary adaptation is successful:-

a. Development of beneficial traits amongst organisms that help it adapt better to the changing environment and reproduce in order to spread and survive.

b. Secondly, such evolutionary traits should be heritable so that it can be passed on to the next generation.

Examples of Evolutionary Adaptation

History has several evidences of evolutionary adaptation. The early species of snakes had legs before Mother Nature decided to trade their limbs against an enhanced ability to fit into tighter spaces like holes, where they could easily bury themselves and escape predators. Giraffe’s long neck tells another story of evolutionary adaptation. We all know the fact that giraffe’s neck helps them reach out to higher branches of the tree for food. However the evolution of long necks was not just meant for that. Since these tall animals have tall legs which do not bend on their knees, drinking water would have become impossible if not for their long necks, which bends low to sip the life saving potion from lakes and other water bodies. Without this, they would not have survived nature’s ordeal. Mice, the poor nocturnal creatures which lack night vision, evolved to have larger ears which help them hear better and save themselves against possible threats. The evolutionary adaptation list is endless.

Communication is a Privilege of One and All

Everyone communicates- mostly through sounds and movements. Just because we cannot understand what the two beautiful sparrows by our window side are chirping doesn’t mean that they do not understand each other either. Elephants use their trunks to communicate with distant herds of their own species; fireflies glow as a mating sign; baboons touch to express love and affection; and male whales sing to communicate with their female counterparts.

However, it is only us, who have evolved to learn and master the art of spoken language. With countless words spoken over thousands of different languages all over the world, humans can express everything that they ever desired through language.

Language: The Most Significant Human Evolutionary Trait

Though nobody is certain about it, several researches suggest that the first words must have been spoken somewhere between 30,000-1, 00,000 years ago. It came to us as a natural instinct to survive.

Why couldn’t we survive without language when other organisms could? When did the need arise? As per a widely held theory, humans like other organism, initially communicated by using various combinations of calls and gestures. However, with the passage of time, they felt the need for a more complex mechanism to communicate to survive.In order to hunt, farm and protect themselves against predators and surrounding environment, more advanced means of communication made its way through the human race. Let us take an example to elaborate the need for language:-

Think of a group of primitive humans in search of food. Suddenly one of them spots an animal and communicates his findings to others in the group through gestures and calls. The others follow but are unable to hunt it down. They feel the need to form a hunting strategy to succeed the next time. To communicate the strategy, they use a more complex system of gestures and calls. The strategy calls for using stones and making of wooden weapons for hunting. Communicating its look, shape and directions for use was becoming quite a task through gestures. On the other hand, humans were developing an understanding of weather conditions. Strong winds indicated an impending storm which also meant that if they did not hunt immediately, they might have to spend the entire day without food. Arrival of autumn indicated that they should start collecting and storing food for winters, so on and so forth. The need to link multiple situations to arrive at a desirable result gave way to intricate communication skills which eventually took the shape of human language. Language further evolved as humans forayed into farming and construction of their homes. This theory also explains that language was also an important part of making humans the social creatures that they are today.

The second theory of language evolution

There is another explanation to why humans speak and what gave way to the need of language. Though it is closely linked to the theory of evolution, it dismisses the assumption that language was a by-product of evolutionary adaptation. We would discuss this theory in our next blog: The 2nd theory of language and Evolution – what made humans speak?

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